The Probationary Firefighter: An Introduction to Incident Command

The three principles of incident command create help control an incident.


Firefighters graduating their basic training program are rightfully very proud of their accomplishment. This is just the beginning of an enjoyable and fulfilling experience that must be founded on further training. As enjoyable as a profession as this is, there is still the potential to not return home after a shift or a fire. Far too many after-action reports list the breakdown of the department’s command structure or the lack of such a command structure altogether as root causes for members being killed in action.

In this article we will attempt to instill in the newest firefighters the importance of Incident Command. We will break it down into an easy to understand format. Like every organizational system, it is vital that all of the players know and understand the process and their role in it.

So many excellent sources are available on this topic. We will not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but rather discuss the incident command system (ICS) from the layman’s point of view. Sometimes our newest firefighters are subjected to information overload and will begin to prioritize what they perceive to be important. The large amount of information, concepts, and terminology just at the basic levels (I-100 and I-700) alone might be enough to intimidate the newest member.

Therefore we will cover the very basics and at the end provide a tiered system of further education that a firefighter can pursue at their convenience. It is important that such large amounts of information be digested over a period of time and not all at once.

There are many great sources available that offer free online training, supplemented with large amounts of downloadable information, and provide documentation after successfully completing an online exam.

The Basic Ingredients Of Incident Command

Incident Command has three major principles. If these principles are adhered to, the incident or event will be easier to manage, easier to control, more effective, and much safer for those operating. ICS applies to all of our responses, from the single engine response to a multiple alarm fire. The great thing about ICS is that it is very flexible and can be tailored to the situation.

Principle 1: Every incident or event needs someone to be in charge. In other words, we need an Incident Commander (sometimes called the IC) (see Figure 1).

Principle 2: The IC must be able to look at the incident and break it down into small, manageable, bite-sized pieces each led by someone he or she can trust.

Principle 3: There is a need for staging responding resources.

Let’s take a look at these three principles and see how they can make the fireground a safer and more effective place to operate.

Principle 1: It is critical that someone be in charge. If no one takes the “reigns” we are going to have chaos. Furthermore, the person who steps up to the plate must be proficient in his or her role. At least to the point to recognize the dangers, to recognize that he or she may not have the ability to handle this level of complexity, and the good sense to call for those leaders that do.

Far too many disasters have befallen the fire service due to a lack of training, education, and experience. Failure to be proficient, failure to “know the job” could very possibly lead to disaster even if the basic ICS principles are utilized! Large-scale operations or operations that are out of the ordinary may demand a teamwork approach to management. This is called a Unified Command and is well out of the scope of this article. The sources below go into great depth as it relates to this topic and other complex details.

Principle 2: The IC must be able to look at an incident and say, “I can divide this up into smaller parcels of responsibility.” In other words, the use of Division and Group Supervisors are critical at a larger or evolving incident. The IC will tell each supervisor their part in the overall plan, give them the appropriate resources to accomplish the mission, and then turn them loose (within the parameters of the “Incident Action Plan”). The goal here is to alleviate the IC from becoming a micromanager resulting in him or her becoming completely overwhelmed and loosing sight of the big picture.

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